Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Why I Don't Like Computer-Drawn Cartoons

When it comes to humans, they say that symmetry equals beauty. Actually, they say that near-symmetry equals beauty, but perfect symmetry freaks people out. Therein lies my problem with modern computer animation.

Some time ago, the animation studios all switched from hand-drawn cartoons and animated films to computer generated images. The reason was cost. Though naturally, the studios also claimed this was what people wanted and that the images looked better. I've never liked the computer drawn images. They feel fake to me, which is an interesting thing to say about a cartoon... which is fake by its very nature.

What bothers me though is the lack of imperfection. When characters were hand drawn, it was virtually impossible to create perfect symmetry, especially when drawing something that was spherical in nature. Thus, the images they drew were all believable and real to me because even though they were animated, they had just enough real world asymmetry to feel natural... as if they could be out there somewhere. But in the computer age, all the drawings are mathematically perfect and all that inescapable asymmetry has vanished. Suddenly, the characters are too perfect to be real, as is nature around them.

That said, there have been two instances lately where I have been able to overlook this and not feel bothered by the glaring symmetry. Interestingly, these exceptions proved the point to me because of what makes them unique. The first is Wreck-It Ralph, and the reason the perfect symmetry in Wreck-It Ralph didn't bother me was because this film takes place in the world of videogames. That means that the characters are meant to have an unreal feel to them. Hence, it was easy to overlook the unreality because you expected the characters to look unreal.
The other example was the minions from Despicable Me. Again, these characters are perfectly symmetrical and that makes them look fake when you look at them one on one. What saves them, however, is that the filmmakers tried to make each of them look different. Thus, even though one-on-one they are too symmetrical to look like they really exist, as a group they are fine because the lack of symmetry in the group hides the absolutely symmetry within the characters themselves.

In both instances, the symmetry problem vanished. Few other computer drawn films, however, have similar means of hiding their misguided perfection. That's why I prefer hand-drawn animation, because the imperfection caused by the human hand makes the characters more realistic. It makes them something which can exist in the real world. The perfection which comes with computer drawn images cannot do that. And few animators seem to realize the problem.

Thoughts?

43 comments:

Kit said...

I see your point, though there are lots of CGI animated movies I love (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Frozen).

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Even in Toy Story, I saw this as an issue. The story is great, but the animation never felt anywhere as real as if it had been hand drawn.

Koshcat said...

I agree and there is something else that I can't put my finger on. In Despicable Me the characters are drawn cartoonish as well. But when they try to go for realism (I'm think of something like Polar Express) it gets creepy. Like I'm watching a bunch of soulless emotional less sociopaths.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, I've noticed that too. The more they try to make the characters look like real people, the creepier they get. And some of them end up looking exactly like you say -- soulless, emotionless sociopaths. Polar Express in particular had creepy characters.

Anthony said...

Andrew,

When discussing Zemeckis films, I think the term you are looking or 'uncanny valley'. It was coined by a robotics guy but it comes up a lot in discussions about computer graphics.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley

However, the other (unrelated IMHO) problem you are describing is characters looking too symmetrical. In fairness, that isn't a problem for younger audiences.

Not that we adults can throw stones. The actors adult audiences tend to love may not be absolutely perfect in terms of their physical appearance, but most of them are a lot closer to perfection than the average person.

Honestly, I confess that like kids, I don't have a problem with big budget modern CG graphics outside of Zemeckis films. The comparatively low quality stuff ones sees in tv shows like Beware the Batman and Kung Fu Panda is another story though.

PikeBishop said...

How about the "done on the cheap" symmetry of Hanna Barbara back in the Golden Age?

Remember when Fred would run past the same house, the same tree and the same mountain about a dozen times?

Kit said...

The kids in Polar Express were pretty creepy.

Backthrow said...

Pike,

To be fair, that 'repeating background' technique was an old and common one, used quite a bit in even the fully-animated Warner Bros (and others) cartoons in the 1940s; Probably the only studio that didn't do it much in their short subjects, back then, was Disney. It's just that Hanna-Barbera cut more corners for TV production and did it all that much more than had been done before. Most of the main animators at H-B, at least in the late-1950s/1960s, were the same guys who animated fully at MGM, Warner, Disney, Walter Lantz, Fleischer/Famous, Terrytoons, etc). They were just working cheaper and quicker, via many short-cuts.

Backthrow said...

Andrew,

It's funny, the monetary rationale for switching entirely from hand-drawn features to CGI. I doubt they've saved that much money (if at all), since, going by the end-credit rolls, they now seem to require 10x more animators and various technical crew than they did when the features were hand-drawn (but with the 'ink and paint' stage handled by computer, rather than the old days of each cel being hand-inked and hand-painted) in the 1990s. Any time they want to create new hair or anything unique for a CGI character these days, they have to create new software for it, and do tests (maybe you've seen behind-the-scenes clips on some DVDs of some of the odd deformations that occur during these tests)... whereas, in hand drawn, as long as they have the talent, and sometimes some live-action reference to draw upon for inspiration, they can just go ahead and draw whatever they want. One animator, one pencil, and *BOOM*, you have a unique character doing something different, whatever you want, rather than a research team having to put new software together.

The "perfection" isn't what bothers me so much, personally, in the crop of modern CGI features; what does is in the similarity of design of many the characters, which I guess is both a factor of the technology, and stylistical copycat-ism. Maybe it's like in the old days, when most characters wore "Mickey Mouse gloves" (white with three black stripes, three fingers & thumb) and had black pupils that were like pies with one slice removed, but I keep seeing the same basic design for CGI eyes, facial expressions, and basic human design (after THE INCREDIBLES, for example, most any human female character, from MONSTERS VS. ALIENS to FROZEN, look basically alike to me, apart from their hair). Basically, one studio sets a character design template, and the rest follow. Though I guess RANGO was the outlier, in that regard.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, Right, the Uncanny Valley stuff is a different issue, though it's somewhat related.

What I've seen about the study of beauty says that the closer to symmetry you get without actually getting there, the more beautiful humans consider the person. But if you cross into actually being symmetrical, then suddenly you look really creepy. There have been a lot of studies of this and I've seen the photos where they made people look symmetrical and they really do look creepy... inhuman somehow.

For me, this is generally a film by film thing. Some do better than others. But overall, I find modern computer-generated characters to be a lot less real to me than the older hand drawn. I think it would help if they broke up the symmetry.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, Different issue. The backgrounds might have been crap, but Fred felt like a real thing that existed. I can't say the same about a lot of the characters created today.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Tell me about it. Borderline horror film.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, I doubt they saved any money either. It's like CGI. When CGI came along, that was supposed to save them a fortune in sets, extras and costumes. But the cost of films skyrocketed and CGI is the culprit.

I know exactly what you mean about the sameness. All the eyes, all the shapes are always the same. It's the same thing with monsters. CGI monsters these days are all formless blobs with lots of teeth. There is very little creativity in animation or CGI these days.

Kit said...

Andrew,

I'm going to elaborate a bit on Polar Express. I was thinking about it one day and I realized, it was the kids' teeth that creeped me out the most. I don't know why but that was the part of the face and how they interacted with the lips that wigged me out. The mouth just looked really unnatural. In fact, the more I think on it, the body part that always seems to have problems on CGI animated humans is the mouth whether its movies or video games.

Kit said...

Or maybe that is just me.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I thought the soulless eyes and the bizarrely fake emoting the characters did was creepy. It felt ominous to watch them laugh.

Kit said...

I see your point. But it was the apparently black girl's see-through lips that wigged me out the most. (At least that is what I remember)

AndrewPrice said...

I don't remember that specifically, but I can see where that would be upsetting.

Kit said...

(Shudder)

AndrewPrice said...

LOL!

tryanmax said...

Kit, on the mouth, the problem is the limited points of interpolation. That's a mathematical term that I can't pretend to fully understand, but basically what it means is that CGI mouths can only move at a fixed number of locations, while real mouth can move pretty much anywhere along its surface.(Teeth are fixed in the real world, so they probably weren't the problem, they probably just provided the point of reference to notice everything else that was wrong.) That's why it gets creepier the more realistic the subject looks--because the rightness emphasizes the wrongness. You see similar problems with hands, though stiff fingers are less creepy than awkward.

Also, Polar Express is motion capture, which the Academy does not even recognize as animation. Not a particularly meaningful distinction for this conversation except to say that the capture technology is less refined than the animation technology.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, That's a good point too: the more realistic something looks, the more the defects stand out.

tryanmax said...

BTW, I think Polar Express used facial scan modelling, as well (popular in sports games that feature real life players) which has it's own problems. That movie was little more than a glorified proof of concept demo that should never have been presented to the public. So much wrong.

AndrewPrice said...

Interesting. I always had the sense that Polar Express was not quite ready for prime time. I also note that it seems to have been an evolutionary dead end as you don't see other films using the same techniques.

tryanmax said...

A Christmas Carol starring Jim Carey, Jim Carey, and Jim Carey is the only other big one. That's just as creepy-unwatchable, if you ask me.

AndrewPrice said...

Yes, it was. I saw it for the first time this year and I was shocked by how creepy, dark and unwatchable the film was. I'm not even sure what they were thinking in making that one.

Backthrow said...

POLAR EXPRESS (and other Zemeckis animated films), in addition to the "uncanny valley" aspect, also suffer a bit from the fact that they are, unlike Pixar (and Blue Sky, Dreamworks, etc), 'motion capture' (a.k.a. "mo-cap") rather than traditional animation technique. Not that mo-cap is intrinsically bad --it's an amazing tool-- but the problem lies in that it's most often used in all-animated feature films as short-cut for directors with a sole live-action background, who haven't picked up a pencil and drawn a decent (or any) cartoon in their life, to get to play being "animation director" right out of the box.

While both live-action and animation directors share a lot of the same film-making disciplines, and can certainly "cross over" from one to the other, there are certain qualities to animation direction that are unique to the medium, so it seems a bit of a cheat to me when a Zemeckis can festoon Tom Hanks or Jim Carrey with a bunch of target dots, put him front of a green screen, then give the wire frame of that to some CGI team and then call himself an "animation director", as if he had the same years of training as a Brad Bird or Ralph Bakshi.

Backthrow said...

* not counting WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT in the above Zemeckis comments, of course... the film says "directed by Robert Zemeckis" but the animation direction in it was handled by veteren animator/animation director Richard Williams.

AndrewPrice said...

Backthrow, It strikes me that human motion and cartoon motion are actually very unrelated. So going the motion capture route seems like it is destined to fail.

tryanmax said...

Mo-cap was also used in part to translate into Golem in LOTR. He also received many refinements in the way of typical CIG manipulations. Animators are still learning how to use this stuff, much in the same way that Disney's Nine Old Men had to basically write the book on the principles of pen and ink animation.

KRS said...

I was okay with the kids in Polar Express - I went into it expecting some rough edges and the locomotive was wickedly cool - but it was the elves that stopped me cold. Those little demons look like the Flying Monkeys from Oz after being dipped in a vat of Veet gel. Eeeeyagh!!!

I think the cgi movie that rode the hardest through the uncanny valley was The Adventures of Tintin. Don't drink alcohol when you watch it - it only makes things worse.

That said, I'm cool enough with cgi - the opening sequence in Cars pretty much doesn't work any other way. But cgi has to be carefully applied. I remember watching Jurassic Park and rooting for the dinosaurs because they got more character development than the actors. On the other hand, when Dragonheart came out, I thought they excuted the interaction between characters, story and cgi very well. (I pretty much consider any movie with cgi characters to be animation).

Bottom line is discretion. I think directors get a nasty case of the "happy feet" when animation geeks start playing with the screen. Practicing restraint is what's needed.

And, as you point out, Andrew, imperfection is important. I remember seeing a vid on how a cgi bulldozer was created and it wasn't until the layer with the dirt and dings and chipped paint was applied that the thing looked like it had finally landed in the scene. But then, objects are far more believable cgi subjects simply because they are usually symmetrical by design.

tryanmax said...

Ah! Forgot about Tintin. That's motion capture, too! A pattern is emerging.

AndrewPrice said...

Tintin felt really odd as well. It was neither fish nor fowl. Making it worse, I was watching it on a 120 HZ television so it had that videotape feel as well. Visually, it came across more like puppets than animation and it was just plain wrong.

The story was dull too.

tryanmax said...

Okay, I had to wikipedia it. There's five more motion capture films I missed: Final Fantasy (haven't seen it), Happy Feet One and Two (haven't seen 'em), Beowulf (haven't seen it), and Monster House (creepy, dead-eyed kids). That's not counting use in live-action films like Avatar and Tron:Legacy.

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, I think imperfection is the key to good animation. Things don't feel real when they are too perfect. Everything has scuff marks and dirt and nothing is perfectly straight or symmetrical in real life. When they let their computers make things perfect on film, it just feels wrong. It comes across as fake.

AndrewPrice said...

Final Fantasy feels like a videogame, where the motion is both not quick enough to feel real and yet over-exaggerated so you notice it. The story is crap too -- I've reviewed that one.

Happy Feet felt generic and unreal to me. Haven't seen Beowulf. Monster House was creepy.

Backthrow said...

I saw BEOWULF... not very memorable, but it wasn't trying to be cartoony, so it fell more into FINAL FANTASY territory.

I'm sure glad Zemeckis ended up abandoning his plan a couple of years ago to make a mo-cap remake/re-imagining/something of YELLOW SUBMARINE. That would've been scary and awful.

Tryanmax,

Correct, the Gollum, and (despite the film's flaws) Kong in Jackson's remake of KING KONG, were well-done applications of mo-cap (with further CGI applied later). Like I said, mo-cap is an amazing tool, but oftentimes it isn't used to best effect by Hollywood.

goldvermilion87 said...

I agree with everyone that the motion capture movies are really really creepy. I've only seen two of them, and it was bizarre.

I think I understand the point you're making, Andrew, about symmetry. There is something I might describe as a "warmth" in traditional animation that is lacking in computer animation. But, that being said, there is a degree of detail possible in computer animation that's not in traditional animation.

I do think that the computer animation only works when it fully embraces that it's animation. So, for example, UP works for me visually, because you've got people and dogs with enlarged heads and tiny bodies sort of Peanuts style. Toy Story works when the toys are on the screen, because toys are fake looking by definition, and Toy Story works when that weird cartoony old man is cleaning Woody (Toy Story 2). When the people are on the screen in Toy Story, it's a tad eerie, because they're mostly normal looking.

I guess, to me, it's just a different art form with the ups and downs of every art form.

(On a related note, I find CGI in films to be a blessing and a curse as well.)

AndrewPrice said...

goldvermilion, I agree with you about the word "warmth." There is a warmth/life/??? in handdrawn characters that vanishes in computer drawn characters.

Agreed about Toy Story as well. The people are creepy, the rest are fine.

Kit said...

I think in Toy Story 3 the people, even Andy, are better looking and a lot less creepy.

goldvermilion87 said...

There was definitely improvement through the Toy Story films, but that's because it's what . . . a fifteen year gap from the first to the third?

KRS said...

Just happened to think of another movie where they handled the effects very well, Mighty Joe Young. It was a fun, engaging little alternative to the King Kong trope by mixing it up with "gentle giant" trope elements. Joe, the giant ape, was rendered very well throughout the movie. And, they included a lot of behavorial and environmental elements to sell his size. I was able to suspend disbelief quite easily.

AndrewPrice said...

By and large, I think they are getting better at animating with computers. But they still make some big mistakes in my mind and they continue down this dead end of perfect symmetry. I guess we'll see how things go over the next ten years.

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